South African wildlife experts are calling for urgent action against poachers after the last female rhinoceros in a popular game reserve near Johannesburg bled to death after having its horn hacked off.
Wildlife officials say poaching for the prized horns has now reached an all-time high. "Last year, 129 rhinos were killed for their horns in South Africa. This year, we have already had 136 deaths," said Japie Mostert, chief game ranger at the 1,500-hectare Krugersdorp game reserve.
Black-market demand for rhino horn has soared in the past several years,largely due to the economic boom in east and southeast Asia, where the horn is used for medicinal purposes. (Right: each medicine pictured has some component of rhino horn in it.)
The gang used tranquillizer guns and a helicopter to bring down the nine-year-old rhino cow. Her distraught calf was moved to a nearby estate where it was introduced to two other orphaned white rhinos.
South Africa and neighboring Zimbabwe are responsible for 95% of the poaching, Traffic said. Now conservation experts and South African parks officials say international crime syndicates have entered the trade.
The syndicates sponsor organized hunts and, increasingly, use helicopters, military-grade guns and prescription tranquilizers to pursue their prey.
“Current rhino poaching trends indicate a high level of organization and crime syndication at the local, national, regional and international levels,” according to Reynold Thakhuli, spokesperson for South Africa National Parks.
“Rhino poaching activity has escalated dramatically throughout South Africa,” he said.
South Africa’s national parks say they lost 36 rhinos to poaching in 2008 and 50 in 2009. The country has already lost 31 rhinos to poaching so far this year, according to the International Rhino Foundation.
The escalation has hit Kruger Park (right) particularly hard.
“We’d never had an amount of poaching that I would refer to as a problem – not until last year. I think the highest we’d ever had before was seven in one year in 2008. Then in 2009 we lost 41.”
International police agency Interpol is moving to crack down on the trade.
Wanda Mkutshulwa, a spokeswoman for South African National Parks, said investigations into the growing number of incidents had been shifted to the country's organized crime unit. "We are dealing with very focused criminals. Police need to help game reserves because they are not at all equipped to handle crime on such an organized level,'' she said.
Rhino horn consists of compressed keratin fiber – similar to hair – and in many Asian cultures it is a fundamental ingredient in traditional medicines.
Mkutshulwa said poaching was also rife in the Kruger Park. Five men were arrested there in the past week alone – four of whom were caught with two bloodied rhino horns, AK-47 assault rifles, bolt-action rifles and an axe.
Krugersdorp game reserve attracts at least 200,000 visitors every year. It is also close to a private airport, which may have been used by the poachers.
"The exercise takes them very little time," Mostert said. "They first fly over the park in the late afternoon to locate where the rhino is grazing. Then they return at night and dart the animal from the air. The tranquillizer takes less than seven minutes to act.
"They saw off the horns with a chainsaw. They do not even need to switch off the rotors of the helicopter. We do not hear anything because our houses are too far away. The animal dies either from an overdose of tranquillizer or bleeds to death."
The committee of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) warned last year that rhino poaching had reached an all-time high. The Cites conference in Geneva in July 2009 heard that Asia's economic expansion had fueled the market in rhino horns. The horns are also used in the Middle East to make handles for ornamental daggers. Cites said demand for them had begun to soar in recent years. In the five years up to 2005, an average of only 36 rhinos had been killed each year.
Conservationists estimate that there are only 18,000 black and white rhinos in Africa, down from 65,000 in the 1970s. Mostert, who has been a ranger for 20 years, said the animals fetch up to 1m rand (£85,000) at game auctions and cannot be insured.
Cites has praised South Africa for its action against poachers. Two weeks ago, a Vietnamese man was jailed for 10 years for trying to smuggle horns out of the country.
The Guardian, "Poachers kill last female rhino in South African park for prized horn", accessed July 21, 2010